Henry Rosenbloom, founder and publisher at Scribe, Skypes me from his Melbourne office with the relaxation of someone who is used to doing intercontinental business. Forty years on from Scribe’s launch, we discuss the process of international expansion and what drives Rosenbloom’s passion for the printed word
Rosenbloom's enthusiasm for publishing is clear. His particular interests of the moment include the growing market for popular science books by women, and politics' effect on the industry. "The times are terrible," he says vehemently, "the politics are bad - but the books are better."
Rosenbloom's editorial bent was clear early: he was editor of his school magazine, and took on his university paper when he moved on to the University of Melbourne. After graduating, he went into freelance journalism, before landing a job in Gough Whitlam's Labor government.
But he says: "I never had a plan for a career", and he found himself at a loose end once that job was over. "I thought I had skills that would suit publishing, although I had obviously never worked in a publishing company: I was interested in public affairs, I could write. I had a keen regard for the public and national interest."
More than that, Rosenbloom had personal investment. The son of Holocaust survivors, he feels a strong influence from family history. "Later on in life, I've realised that what drives me as a publisher, in a strange kind of way, is the Holocaust," he says. "That's what imprinted on me the seriousness of the world we live in, and how important it was to try to understand history, politics, people, and how to tell the truth. How to 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable'. Books have the power to change people's lives, and we want to put out books that demand to be published because of their intrinsic significance." As the Scribe website says, these are "books that matter".
The evolution of a publishing house
Rosenbloom is sincerely excited by the talent of his staff. "I feel like a grandfather figure, really," he smiles. "I love seeing these - mostly young - people completely committed to what we think of as the Scribe enterprise and mission. They're so conscientious, engaged and good at what they do. I don't want to be deluded about it, but I think they're happy at work, and it's not as easy to achieve that as it might sound. I have tremendous respect for my staff."
Yet by necessity, for many years, Rosenbloom drove Scribe almost single-handed. Though Scribe now publishes fiction as well, the publisher’s first aim was simple: serious non-fiction. "I found out later on that no one knew what 'serious non-fiction' meant in Australia in 1976," he says. "They looked at me blankly! You have to understand that Australia at the time was a kind of depository for multinational publishers, especially British-based multinationals. We were essentially a distribution centre for them. They had the market all sewn up. They could decide what to publish and when."
For decades, Rosenbloom says, Australia "simply absorbed" whatever British or US publishers decided to print. "There was no indigenous publishing programme. When it did emerge, it tended to be fairly commercial and slapdash. It took a long time before there was 'serious publishing' going on. That's changed over decades, everybody's got the message that Australia is a significant English language market now."
It was some time before Scribe got into full swing. At first, Rosenbloom published only a few books a year: he was "side-tracked", first by running his father's printing company, then by a move to the countryside, where he became a "gentleman publisher".
"Nobody knew I was a publisher except a few friends and the handful of authors I had, but I thought I was a publisher!" Rosenbloom grins. Pre-internet, it was impossible to run a successful publishing house outside one of the major cities in Australia, however, and when circumstances forced a move back to Melbourne, it offered a new slate for Scribe.
"I was about 50 years old," says Rosenbloom, "and it was my last chance to find out if I could be the publisher I thought I could be."
That's when Scribe really took off. Because of his production background, Rosenbloom was able to turn books around fast, so that when the company struck big with its first bestseller, Passionate Marriage, it was able to go from buying the rights to getting the books on to shelves in three weeks, and could handle the sales of 10,000 copies in three months.
Scribe bought overseas rights to bring in "quality" books and "thicken" the list, and Rosenbloom began to trust his own editorial judgement. Within a few short years, he had outgrown his home office and was in rented premises with numerous staff. "I felt like I had to make up those 20 lost years," Rosenbloom says. "I've been going at a hundred miles an hour ever since then."
Think local, act global
Not content with simply being a Melbourne publisher, however, Rosenbloom started travelling overseas to BookExpo America, the London Book Fair and Frankfurt. Yet Scribe often had trouble .
"English publishers always buy - at a minimum - UK and Commonwealth rights," explains Rosenbloom. "Very quaint. The Commonwealth is what used to be called the Empire. In British publishers' view it was their territory! I couldn't believe this when I first heard it. I became an Australian nationalist, more than I already was. I was picking up good books, but this problem was driving me nuts. I agitated and fought and abused people, and argued in public about it. I was known as a rabble-rouser!"
Even so, if ANZ was off the table, international publishers were too afraid they wouldn't get a UK deal. So Rosenbloom decided to get around the problem by setting up his own UK publishing house. "It's simple when you put it like that, but it's actually hard to do, because to do it, you actually had to set up a genuine UK publishing enterprise."
In 2012, Scribe UK launched, aligning with the Faber Factory Plus distribution service. Rosenbloom's first hire was a publicity manager, followed by an assistant, before Philip Gwyn Jones came on board from Granta and Portobello Books as editorial director.
It wasn’t always easy, Rosenbloom admits. "We made just about every mistake in the book. Most people who do this do lose money, sometimes for years. It's difficult setting up a publisher in a different culture and market. Even though England and Australia are alike, they're also different in many ways, and we're still learning."
However, Scribe UK is now flourishing; it has five staff, with significant year-on-year growth and a number of commercial successes, including surprise bestseller Gut by Giulia Enders.
This success has encouraged Rosenbloom to expand once again, this time into the United States. Scribe has switched to a mainstream distributor to accommodate this, and there is a two-person team for publicity and marketing, already getting to work on the first list, due this autumn.
"I'm not setting up Scribe US," Rosenbloom makes clear. "That is, I'm not hiring editorial staff or a Scribe office at the moment. I want to take it slowly and carefully. It just seemed like the next logical step: when you try to sell rights in the US, you get rejections nearly all the time, and that frustrated me because these are good books that are being denied a market. So, again, I just thought, 'Bugger it, I'll do it myself!'"
Rosenbloom is intrigued by the fact that many American publishers are starting to set up imprints in the UK for similar reasons. "It's a sign of the impact of glabalisation even on small companies. I'm sure, even though they haven't explained it to me, that those American publishing houses feel what I feel, that there's consolidation going on among the huge publishers, Amazon is a massive force that dwarfs them combined, and that it is exerting enormous pressure of different kinds in the marketplace, especially on acquiring the rights in the first place.
"What does an independent publisher do? Well, they have to be very nimble and agile and be very good at what they do, but they also have to be global if possible. They have to mimic that kind of approach and thinking. That's becoming more and more obvious."